Is Nick Coatsworth Misled on Masks?

It appears to many that Dr Nick Coatsworth, the sensible-looking face of the Australian government’s Covid-19 vaccine advertisements, is misinformed about the need for masks in schools. At least that is what one could reasonably conclude from his recent comments on Twitter.

Last week, Dr Coatsworth tweeted, “Zero COVID academics should leave our kids alone.”

The statement goes against the evidence. In a major meta-review of mask-efficacy studies published in January 2021, masks were found to reduce the likelihood of viral transmission by 70-80%.

Part of why compulsory mask-wearing is so important is because of the now established evidence of pre-symptomatic transmission. Infectiousness of SARS-CoV-2 starts 2.3 days before symptom onset and peaks 0.7 days before onset. This means that banking on a greater adherence to staying home while sick is insufficient.

But aren’t things different with children? Not by enough. Just as vaccinated people can still carry and transmit the disease, viral loads are similar in children and adults, even though the disease is less harmful to them.

Without Covid controls, the Doherty Report predicts over a million Covid infections in children in the next six months. Even with a 1% hospitalisation rate, that means thousands of children in hospital.

The meta-review’s authors concluded, “Nonmedical masks use materials that obstruct particles of the necessary size; people are most infectious in the initial period postinfection, where it is common to have few or no symptoms; nonmedical masks have been effective in reducing transmission of respiratory viruses; and places and time periods where mask usage is required or widespread have shown substantially lower community transmission.

“The available evidence suggests that near-universal adoption of nonmedical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public healthmeasures, could successfully reduce [the virus’s reproduction number] to below 1, thereby reducing community spread if such measures are sustained.”

An Associate Professor at ANU, Dr Coatsworth would normally follow the evidence closely. Unfortunately, in this instance his comments seem to fit somewhat with with the anti-mask activism that has been so prominent in Middle America.

For example, South Carolina recently passed a law banning schools from implementing mask mandates. The law is being challenged in US federal court.

The southern state is joined by Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Utah in banning mask mandates. Meanwhile, 10 states have made masks compulsory for students and teachers.

Let us hope that even in spite of the recent so-called “freedom rallies,” Australians by and large can stick to the evidence on Covid-related questions.

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